The critical difference between design vs. creativity

Design and creativity are two terms most people use interchangeably, but they could not be more different, and understanding those differences can make huge differences in your career, your team, and the impact you make in your company. In this episode, we will look at how design and creativity are often confused and misunderstood, how they should be defined, why the difference is important, and how to apply them to your career and team.

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I want to revisit and focus on something I have talked about this concept is other episodes but this problem is so big and so foundational that I wanted to give it it’s own episode. I wanted to do that because I see this problem in almost every design team I work with. And it is not just limited to small companies or immature design teams. I have taught this at a few small companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, IDEO and many, many more.

It’s understanding some really basic concepts that have a huge impact on driving value, growth and investment in your career, and team. It’s understanding the difference between design and creativity. To be clear when I say design I am using that word to stand in for any creative execution – design, writing, coding, painting, or anything else.

In this episode, we will look at how design and creativity are often confused and misunderstood, how they should be defined, why the difference is important, and how to apply them to your career and team.

The problem

As I’ve worked to lead my own teams and have watched so many other teams over the past 18 months I started to see interesting things. Why was it that you could take two teams who had similar tools, processes and methodologies and one would be so respected and empowered yet the other one would be overlooked and frustrated that they can’t have an impact.

I knew it had to be something under the surface. Something we didn’t see or understand yet was right in front of all of us. I started by noticing that companies used a lot of terms to try and describe what they want. Some of the most common terms are design, collaboration, teamwork, brainstorming, agile to innovation. The problem is that none of these terms define what they really are looking for and using them causes a huge amount of confusion. Most people and most teams have no idea what they really were talking about – and that is the root of the whole problem.

The basics

What I realized is that all of this was trying to talk about two different things – design and creativity. But it is how we define and understand those terms that make all the difference. I know a lot of people would argue that these are the same thing but for me, they could not be more different. I’ve talked about this a ton in my talks over the years and this is one of the starting points I use for all of the transformation work and coaching that I do. Let’s talk about how I think these two things are different because I see the concepts and terms get confused and misused all the time.

Creativity vs. design

Let’s start with the most basic way of looking at these two things.
CREATIVITY: Problem-solving. The core of methodologies like design thinking and design sprints.
DESIGN: Visual expression of the solution valued by almost no companies.

This is important to you, your career and your team becauseā€¦
CREATIVITY: Everyone is creative, they just forgot.
DESIGN: This is a specialized craft so very few people can design.

The approach for each of these needs to be different.
CREATIVITY: Social movement to empower people but maybe don’t use the word design to get it to scale.
DESIGN: Can be endlessly debated when it is reduced to the execution.

The reason why all these matters so much are because how you position yourself and your team makes all the difference.
CREATIVITY: Creativity asset
DESIGN: Commodity

Final thought

Your career will start with execution.

But it needs to evolve to creativity if you want to have long term success.

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